In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws created a box office sensation and went on to become one of the greatest movies ever made. Jaws was followed by several sequels and copycats, and made its cast and author Peter Benchley famous. It also created hysteria about shark attacks—millions of swimmers across the world were suddenly cautious of this new threat as they went for a swim in the sea. So much so, that in a survey, more than 90% of the respondents confessed to selachophobia—the fear of sharks—after being influenced by Jaws.

This irrational phobia is the key to understanding what terror does to us. And it is irrational because an average person is far more likely to die of heart disease or other ailments, or because of food poisoning, murder, road accidents and even lightning strikes, than being killed by a shark. The fear of a threat that is far remoter than several other more probable and preventable causes evokes a completely illogical degree of response.

Unfortunately, this is true in our everyday lives as well. Often, I am asked about what one can do in an individual capacity to fight “terror". While it is true that terrorism and its implications will continue to have a great influence on our lives, the fact is there are far more potent and preventable risks than a terrorist attack that we and our dear ones are exposed to every day. So if I were to write a primer on personal risks and their mitigation strategies, it would read something like this:

Take care of your health, especially if you are more than 30 years old. This reduces your exposure to diseases of the heart, which, incidentally, is the No. 1 killer worldwide, and to cancer, diabetes, flu and pneumonia, which are the next in line in terms of the number of fatalities each year. Also, in a crisis situation, especially the first 30 seconds after the crisis starts, physical fitness and mental alertness are the two key elements to survival. There are countless incidents of survivors who managed to escape certain death simply because they were physically fit and escaped danger because they could run down 20 floors, jump across a chasm, or simply survive without food and water for several days. All of this is impossible for a wheezing overweight person.

Train yourself to be calm, but alert. Everyone experiences fear. Even the most bloodied combat veterans go through this physiological process, which is hardwired into our brains. But the essential distinction between people who panic and literally leap to their death, and those who survive is the latter’s ability to control their impulsive irrational behaviour for the few extra seconds that make the difference. Of course, this is easier said than done, but here are some simple yet effective techniques that work:

Panic in its base form is increased adrenaline in anticipation of flight or fight response. This serves us well if we are being chased by an animal (or a shark), but will probably exacerbate the situation in most other crises. Taking several deep breaths and regaining composure helps. It also helps to mentally plan out scenarios that might occur some day. This exercise is unpleasant, which is why we avoid it, but it is better that you think through what you would do if a loved one has an accident right now, than freeze when the event actually occurs. Who would you call first? Who would you call if that first person is unavailable?

Some events ought to be planned as a family, which brings me to the next point. Educate children. Most of us, especially in India, are programmed to shield our children from the harsh realities of life. But that just handicaps them. Children, especially smaller ones, need to be taught what to do in the event of natural or man-made disasters. They need to be taught to memorize phone numbers, be aware of hostile behaviour, sexual advances and basic self-defence. And if you think children are too small to defend themselves, remember that every year scores of kids win gallantry awards for battling wild animals, dacoits and performing other death-defying feats.

Lastly, be aware of your surroundings. Be alert, not alarmed. Our brain is programmed to sense danger if we allow it to. So when your intuition warns about a situation, pause and pay heed. People have escaped death and serious injury in accidents, disasters and even terrorist attacks simply because they had been aware of subtle but evident changes in the environment around them. Suspicious persons, a car parked for too long or uneasy behaviour are indications that something is just not right, and the unconscious mind captures it.

While terrorist incidents shake and scare us, we are much more likely to be caught in fatal situations that are far less dramatic. Training the mind and the body to be aware, alert and capable of responding well during such crises could mean the difference between life and death.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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